Ties That Bind
|by Brent Kennedy
Presented at Fifth Union
Friday, 18 June 2004
First and foremost, I’d like to dedicate my remarks today to my late Mother, Nancy Hopkins Kennedy, who left this World August 9th, 2002. Like most all mothers she was a truly special lady and we miss her, a whole, whole, lot.
That being said, how many of you have heard me tell the story of my experience some years back with the children at Lincoln Elementary School here in Kingsport? With apologies to those who have heard it before, I’m going to re-tell it today. I’m repeating it for a reason: this little story sums up, at least for me, what the Melungeon odyssey is all about.
It was in 1997, I believe, that I was invited to speak to the combined fourth and fifth grade classes at Lincoln Elementary School. The teachers and students had assembled in the auditorium and I presented the story of the Melungeons, and how my own family fit into the legacy of these so-called “mystery people” of the central Appalachians. I laid out my general beliefs about the Melungeons – beliefs that remain for the most part pretty much the same today as they were then.
Although I simplified it for the children, here, in slightly more adult language, is what I told them.
First, “Melungeon” was, and is, a culture – not a race. However, certain ethnic traits – such as darker skin – undoubtedly helped one along the road to being labeled a “Melungeon.” You could be a Melungeon and have Scots-Irish or English or German heritage just as legitimately as you could have Native American or African or Spanish or Turkish or Portuguese or what have you. Melungeons were not – and never were – simply “this” or “that.”
Second, the Melungeons were a broad based, mixed population with a strong Native American component – and shared common surnames – that moved eastward from the coastal areas. Over time they split off into separate communities, intermarried with other pioneers and developed their own unique histories and ethnic designations.
Third, those groups identifiable today as Melungeons are merely the tip of the iceberg. “Out migration” (that is, leaving home and moving somewhere else) has taken the genes of these earliest pioneers far beyond the Appalachian Mountain range. Melungeon descendants today are to be found throughout this Nation, from its heartland to the mid-west to the Pacific coast. Melungeons, and their kin, helped define who Americans are as a people, even if the vast majority of those who are descended from them have no inkling of their existence.
Fourth, I got into the basics of ethnic characteristics, or what we perceive as ethnic characteristics. I spoke about genetics and physical traits and how science – and our own eyes – could tell us much about who we are and from whence we came. I spoke about visible ethnic traits that we could all see by simply standing in front of a mirror, and I spoke about how these traits could tie us to so-called, “other” people. And how, if provided the information, that almost all of us could quickly discern that “purity of race” is an imaginary and flawed concept.
We talked about epicanthal eyefolds, Asian shovel teeth, and an enhanced external occipital protuberance that provides visible evidence of Asian and central Asian heritage. And how these traits could come from a Native American ancestor, or a Chinese grandmother, or a Turk, or even an Ashkenazi Jew, but all evidence of an Asian ancestry somewhere in our past. And, finally, I spoke of how whites, blacks, Native Americans – and Melungeons – often shared these traits – evidence of an admixture at a level ignored – and even denied – when I was a school boy back in the 1950s and 60s. And I could see these children en masse rubbing the backs of their heads and staring into each other’s eyes with seeming amazement.
And then, I wrapped up my presentation, with a hundred little hands applauding. And, to be honest, unsure of what impact, if any, I’d had.
At that point, the lead teacher asked the children if there were any questions – and there were a few. As I answered their questions, I noticed that far in the back of the auditorium three children kept talking amongst themselves. Finally, one of the teachers walked over, leaned down and spoke quietly to them, reprimanding them for their behavior, I assumed. And then, all of a sudden, these three children – a little “white” boy, a little “black” girl, and a little Korean girl – came bouncing down the aisle of the auditorium, as only children can do, holding hands and smiling from ear to ear.
“These children have something they’d like to announce, Dr. Kennedy,” the teacher said.
And in a moment I will never, ever forget, three little voices proclaimed in unison:
”We’re cousins! We’re cousins!”
Each child – white, black, Korean – had discovered his or her epicanthal folds, enhanced occipital protuberances, and shovel teeth.
Up until that day, these children saw themselves as members of three separate, unrelated “races.” And now, with just a little information, they saw – and delighted in – their newfound kinship.
These children understood the underlying beauty of the Melungeon story. Understood what many adults continue to struggle with; that being, that we ARE all kin. Not just figuratively, but literally. And that if we go back far enough in time – and sometimes it’s a lot less further back than we might imagine – that we stem from the same source. And that’s the real lesson here: that we should be teaching our children to accept and respect others because there really truly are no major differences. Skin color and hair texture and geography of birth are rather insignificant matters when placed against the total backdrop of what it means to be human.
Prejudice continues to be nothing more than self-mutilation.
“We’re cousins!” “We’re cousins!” will be with me for the rest of my life.
As you may have already noticed, my presentation today is different from the usual re-tracing of what we know about the Meungeons and their history. There are enough qualified speakers and enough articles and enough books outlining the theories of how these marvelous people came to be, and I don’t need to repeat it. Suffice it to say that I believe the Melungeons were a multi-cultural, mixed-race/mixed-ethnic population from day one. I believe that Native American, northern European, Mediterranean, African, East Asian and dozens of nationalities come into play, varying to some degree upon each family’s unique history of admixture. Given the historical documents that continue to emerge, there’s no doubt in my mind that England, Spain, Portugal and France, among other nations, were all sending their unwanted human cargo to settle the New World. The first choice for settlers was always someone else’s sons and daughters, with the lower classes and the ethnically and religiously undesirable generally being the first to go. We kid ourselves when we argue otherwise.
All to say, lots and lots of ethnically non-northern Europeans came to these shores and did their best to blend in with the ethnic power structures that were in place. And, for the most part, they succeeded, though in some places the unwanted and the unaccepted became isolated and continued to be just that: unwanted and unaccepted. Social stigmas became attached to thousands of families and those stigmas held fast, in many cases long after the families had, in Darlene Wilson’s words, both legally and physically “whitened up.”
My own family is a prime example. The faces of my relatives – my Mom, my brother, aunts and uncles – belie the official paper trail. In spite of a plethora of northern European surnames, my family, particularly on my Mother’s side, LOOKED Middle Eastern, Native American and African. I was probably less than ten years old when I first began taking note of the inconsistencies. But it all came together on a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1962 as I sat in the darkened confines of the Coaltown Theatre in Norton, Virginia and watched what was to become a classic film: “Lawrence of Arabia.” The faces of the Arabs and the Berbers and the Turks were NOT exotic to me: they were the faces of my family and it was stunning. I hitch-hiked back to Wise with my now deceased friend and next door neighbor, “Little” Bill Davis, and asked my Mom…why? She had no answers, other than to recount the remembered prejudice that her family – and she personally – had known over the years.
In the forty two years that have passed since that afternoon, I’ve learned a great deal about my “Scots-Irish” family. Yes, we have northern European heritage. And yes, fair skin and blond hair and blue eyes can be found amongst our kin. We’re all speaking English today for a reason: lots of northern Europeans DID come to these shores, and I’m proud of every drop of Celtic blood that runs through my veins. It’s a part of who I am. But the emphasis is on the word, “part.” There are other parts of me, as well. Afterall, if we go back in time just ten generations, each of us has 1024 ancestors. Think about that: 1024 ancestors just ten generations back. How can anyone speak of their racial or ethnic purity? And yet, we do. If I go back even one more generation – i.e., eleven generations – I double the above number of ancestors to 2024. Get my point?
But be that as it may, there is still a lesson to be learned from digging into one’s past, both genealogically and genetically. We need to know from where we came in order to know where we’re going. And, a bit more selfishly, I subscribe to the truism that “that person who fails to remember his or her ancestors, is not likely to be remembered by his or her descendants.” What goes around comes around, as they say. And in my particular case, the search for origins has confirmed in an undeniable, physical way the theoretical lesson presented earlier. DNA, while subject to misuse as is any technology, properly applied can offer marvelous insight into what it means to be human.
For example, with an acceptable level of confidence, I now know via privately obtained DNA sequencing that I have Native American ancestry through three of my four grandparents. The family oral traditions through these three grandparents, unprovable through the official written records, turn out to have a probable basis in fact. I’ve also swabbed the cheeks of about thirty relatives representing a variety of my family lineages. With the result, that I now have mtDNA (maternal) and Y-chromosome (paternal) sequences that place at least some of my direct ancestors in:
Northern Europe (England, Ireland, Scotland)
One mtDNA sequence finds its matches clustered almost exclusively among eastern European (i.e., Ashkenazi) Jews, Lebanese Druze, and Palestinians. Two other mtDNA sequences are classic Native American: haplogroups A and B.
All of which screams to me that, when all is said and done, from an ethnic standpoint, no one really knows who he or she is – other than the fact that we are human beings, comprised of all those who came before us, creations of God, children of Abraham.
So…maybe there’s a reason this “Scots-Irish, Redneck, Appalachian hillbilly can walk through his family graveyards – here in central Appalachia – and see Stars of David on the tombstones of his “German” ancestors. And maybe there’s a reason his brother is constantly “profiled” in today’s world as an Iranian or an Arab. And maybe there’s a reason his Mother looked as if she walked out of the Sahara, while his Father could have played bagpipes in Glasgow, Scotland and never drawn a second glance (other than the fact that his Father had no musical ability whatsoever).
In short, we are bits and pieces of the entire world, with each of us expressing our own “luck of the genetic draw” version of those bits and pieces. We are ALL walking, talking advertisements for the United Nations, even if we don’t know it. We are ONE big human family splintered apart by migrations and time, politics and religion. The mantra of the Melungeon Heritage Association, created by Lisa Savage some years ago, remains as apropos today as it was then: “We Are One People, All Colors.”
So, where to from here?
First, kinship is the key to understanding the Melungeons and their wider history, and by ignoring this kinship we strip these marvelous people of the true impact they’ve had on American culture and history. They were not insignificant. Their lives mattered, or should have – not just to their immediate families, but to this Nation, because they contributed mightily to it. They were more than just a few isolated people on a mountaintop here or there. But accepting their geographic dispersion is a different task than defining them. And, yet, attempting to define them has also proved a necessary, though still, inconclusive undertaking.
For me, the struggle to define “Melungeon” opened a much broader door. I learned that trying to “pin down” or identify a specific or limited ethnic origin for the Melungeons was impossible – because, frankly, none existed. Melungeons have always been a mix of humanity, just like every other human being. One cannot separate the layers of heritage as if unweaving a basket. This beautiful synthesis – the whole being greater than the parts – is what makes us who we are, Melungeon or otherwise. Which means, to some degree, virtually ALL origin theories are correct, with each family bringing its own unique history of admixture to the table. In fact, the only incorrect theories are, in my opinion, those that insist upon one and only one ethnicity that somehow magically “defines” Melungeon.
That’s the conclusion I reached in 1992, wrote about in 1993, and saw published in my book in 1994. I haven’t changed my view on this. For the sake of nostalgia, and for those who may be unfamiliar with my book, here are a few quotes from a decade ago:
From pages 166-169:
I don’t think I could have made any clearer my early sentiments regarding the ethnic and cultural diversity of our people. And, again for the record, those sentiments haven’t changed. On the contrary, they’ve grown stronger.
I am steadfast in my belief in the broader heritage of Melungeons, but the door has always been open for new research findings and new evidence. This is the way it has to be in the search for truth. I’m also open to criticism and, as many of you know, have certainly had my fair share of it. But that’s okay: it comes with the territory. In the late 1980s and early 90s, not nearly as many people were interested in the Melungeons, and my greatest fear was that too few people would care enough to delve into this intriguing story, and understand the deeper impact it could have on the broader issue of racial and ethnic understanding. I don’t think we have to worry about a lack of interest any longer – and I’ll take all the criticism in the world, seven days a week, in exchange for what we’ve accomplished.
And when I say “we” – let me mention the names of a just a few researchers and spokespeople, Melungeons all, who were standing tall and proud long before I made my way onto the scene. They gave me the incentive and confidence to move forward, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. I apologize in advance for others that I’ve left out, but these directly influenced me. In alphabetical order:
These folks, and many of their kin, embraced their heritage and were, to trade on a well worn phrase, Melungeon when Melungeon wasn’t cool. Thankfully today, what were once just a few brave souls is now an army. And that army continues to grow, witness those of you here this weekend.
In closing, I thank God every day for letting me be born, and live, and work in this great Nation. As imperfect as our Country has been, and as imperfect as it remains, it is still a Paradise among nations. The mere fact that we can meet here this weekend, and openly discuss its imperfections, is testimony to its greatness. I am proud to be an American and I do not want this sentiment lost in the shuffle of reviewing past injustices.
Here’s to justice and kindness, brotherhood and sisterhood, and to the undeniable fact that:
“We’re cousins! We’re cousins!”